The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VIII. The English Chaucerians

§ 1. Lydgate

THE INFLUENCE of Chaucer upon English poetry of all dialects, during the entire century which followed his death, and part, at least, of the next, is something to which there is hardly a parallel in literature. We have to trace it in the present chapter as regards the southern forms of the language: its manifestation in the northern being reserved for separate treatment. But, while there is absolutely no doubt about its extent and duration, the curiously uncritical habit of the time manifests itself in the fact that, after the very earliest period, not merely Gower, who has been dealt with already, but a third writer, himself the first and strongest instance of this very influence, is, as it were, “co-opted” into the governance which he has himself experienced; and Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate are invoked as of conjoint and nearly equal authority. So with Lydgate we must begin.

It was no part of the generous and spontaneous, if not always wisely allotted, adoration which the Middle Ages paid to their literary masters to indulge in copious biographical notices of them; the rather numerous details that we possess about Chaucer are almost wholly concerned with him as a member, in one way or another, of the public service, not as a poet. Now Lydgate (though his membership of a monastic order would not, necessarily, have excluded him from such occupations) seems, as a matter of fact, to have had nothing to do with them; and we know in consequence, very little about him. That his name was John, that he took, as was very common, his surname from his birthplace, a Suffolk village, but just on the border of Cambridgeshire, and that he was a monk of the great Suffolk abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury, are data; he was, in fact, and even still is, from habit or affectation, spoken of as “the monk of Bury,” as often as by his own name. But further documentary evidence is very slight and almost wholly concerned with his professional work; even his references to himself, which are by no means unfrequent, amount to little more than that he had not so much money as he would have liked to have, that he had more work than he would have liked to have and that he wore spectacles—three things not rare among men of letters—besides those concerning the place of his birth and his entry into religion at fifteen years of age. Tradition and inference—sometimes the one, sometimes the other, sometimes both—date his birth at about 1370 and assign Oxford as the place of his education, with subsequent studies in France and Italy. He seems, at any rate, from his own assertion in an apparently genuine poem, to have been at Paris perhaps more than once. His expressions as regards “his mayster Chaucer” may, possibly, imply personal acquaintance. Formal documents exist for his admission to minor, subdiaconal, diaconal and priest’s orders at different dates between 1388–9 and 1397. He (or some other John Lydgate) is mentioned in certain documents concerning Bury in 1415 and 1423, in which latter year he was also elected prior of Hatfield Broadoak. Eleven years later, he received licence to return to the parent monastery. He had divers patrons—duke Humphrey of Gloucester being one. References to a small pension, paid to him jointly with one John Baret, exist for the years 1441 and 1446; and it has been thought that a reference to him in Bokenam’s Saints’ Lives as “now existing” is of the same year as this last. Beyond 1446, we hear nothing positive of him. It is thus reasonable to fix his career as lasting from c. 1370 to c. 1450.

If this be so, his life was not short: and it is quite certain that such exercises of his art as we possess are very long. The enormous catalogue of his work which occurs in Ritson’s Bibliographia Poetica, extending to many pages and 251 separate items, had been violently attacked: it certainly will not stand examination either as free from duplicates or as confined to certain or probable attributions. But it was a great achievement for its time; and it has not been superseded by anything which would be equally useful to whoever shall desire to play Tyrwhitt to Lydgate’s Chaucer. Until quite recently, indeed, the study of Lydgate was only to be pursued under almost prohibitive difficulties; for, though, in consequence of his great popularity, many of his works were issued by our early printers, from Caxton to Tottel, these issues are now accessible only here and there in the largest libraries. Moreover they—and it would seem also the MSS. which are slowly being brought in to supplement them—present, as a rule, texts of an extreme badness, which may or may not be due to copyists and printers. Till nearly the close of the nineteenth century nothing outside these MSS. and early prints was accessible at all, except the Minor Poems printed by Halliwell for the Percy Society, and the Story of Thebes and other pieces included among Chaucer’s works in the older editions down to Chalmers’s Poets. During the last fifteen years, the Early English Text Society has given us The Temple of Glass, The Secrets of the Philosophers (finished by Burgh), The Assembly of Gods, The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, two Nightingale Powems, Reason and Sensuality and part of the Troy Book; while the Cambridge University Press has issued facsimiles of Caxton’s The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose, reprinted earlier for the Roxburghe Club. These, however, to which may be added a few pieces printed elsewhere, form a very small part of what Lydgate wrote, the total of which, even as it exists, has been put at about 140,000 lines. Half of this, or very nearly half, is contained in two huge works, the Troy Book of 30,000 lines, and The Falls of Princes, adapted from Boccaccio, his most famous and, perhaps, most popular book, which is more than 6000 lines longer. The Pilgrimage of Man itself extends to over 20,000 lines and the other pieces mentioned above to about 17,000 more. The remainder is made up of divers saints’ lives—Our Lady, Albon and Amphabel, Edmund and Fremund, St. Margaret, St. Austin, St. Giles and the Miracles of St. Edmund—varying from five or six thousand lines to three or four hundred; another allegorical piece, The Court of Sapience, of over 2000; poems less but still fairly long bearing the titles Aesop, De Duobus Mercatoribus, Testament, Danse Macabre, a version of Guy of Warwick, December and July and The Flower of Courtesy; with a large number of ballades and minor pieces.

The authenticity of many of these is not very easy to establish, and it is but rarely that their dates can be ascertained with anything like certainty. A few things, such as the verses for queen Margaret’s entry into London, date themselves directly; and some of the saints’ lives appear to be assignable with fair certainty, but most are extremely uncertain. And it does not seem quite safe to assume that all the shorter and better poems belong to the earlier years, all the longer and less good ones to the later.

The truth is that there is hardly any whole poem, and exceedingly few, if any, parts of poems, in Lydgate so good that we should be surprised at his being the author of even the worst thing attributed to him. He had some humour: it appears fairly enough in his best known and, perhaps, best thing, the very lively little poem called London Lickpenny (not “Lackpenny” as it used to be read), which tells the woes of a country suitor in the capital. And it appears again, sometimes in the immense and curious Pilgrimage, a translation from Deguileville, which undoubtedly stands in some relation—though at how many stages nothing but the wildest guessing would undertake to determine—to The Pilgrim’s Progress itself. But this humour was never concentrated to anything like Chaucerian strength; while of Chaucerian vigour, Chaucerian pathos, Chaucerian vividness of description, Lydgate had no trace or tincture.

To these defects he added two faults, one of which Chaucer had never exhibited in any great measure, and from the other of which he freed himself completely. The one is prosodic incompetence; the other is longwinded prolixity. The very same reasons which made him an example of the first made his contemporaries insensible of it; and, in Elizabethan times, he was praised for “good verse” simply because the Elizabethans did not understand what was good or what was bad in Middle English versification. Fresh attempts have recently been made to claim for him at least systematic if mistaken ideas in this respect; but they reduce themselves either to an allegation of anarchy in all English verse, which can be positively disproved, or to a mere classification of prosodic vices, as if this made them virtues. The worst of Lydgate’s apparently systematic roughness is a peculiar line, broken at the caesura, with a gap left in the breaking as in the following,

  • For specheles nothing mayst thou spede, or,
  • Might make a thing so celestial.
  • This extraordinary discord, of which some have striven to find one or two examples in Chaucer, is abundant in Lydgate and has been charitably connected with the disuse of the final -e—in the use of which, however, the same apologists sometimes represent Lydgate as rather orthodox. Unfortunately, it is not, by a long way, the only violation of harmony to be found in him. That some of his poems—for instance, The Falls of Princes—are better than his average in this respect, and that some, such as The Story of Thebes, are worse, has been taken as suggesting that the long-suffering copyist or printer is to blame; but this will hardly suffice. Indeed, Lydgate himself, perhaps, in imitation of Chaucer, but with reason such as Chaucer never had, declares that at one time (“as tho”) he had no skill of metre. It is enough to say that, even in rime royal, his lines wander from seven to fourteen syllables, without the possibility of allowing monosyllabic or trisyllabic feet in any fashion that shall restore the rhythm; and that his couplets, as in The Story of Thebes itself, seem often to be unaware whether they are themselves octosyllabic or decasyllabic—four-footed or five-footed. He is, on the whole, happiest in his ostensible octosyllabics—a metre not, indeed, easy to achieve consummately, but admitting of fair performance without much trouble, and not offering any great temptation to excessive irregularity.

    Unluckily, this very metre tempted Lydgate to fall into what is to most people, perhaps, his unforgivable fault—prolixity and verbiage. It has, now and then, enticed even the greatest into these errors or close to them: and Lydgate was not of the greatest. But it shows him, perhaps, as well as any other, except in very short pieces like the Lickpenny.

    He is, accordingly, out of these short pieces and a few detached stanzas of his more careful rime royal, hardly anywhere seen to more advantage than in the huge and curious translation from Guillaume de Deguileville which has been referred to above. Its want of originality places it at no disadvantage; for it is very doubtful whether Lydgate ever attempted any work of size that was not either a direct translation or more than based upon some previous work of another author. This quaint allegory, with absolutely nothing of Bunyan’s compactness of action, or of his living grasp of character, or of his perfect, if plain, phrase, has a far more extensive and varied conglomeration of adventure, and not merely carries its pilgrim through preliminary theological difficulties, through a Romance-of-the-Rose insurrection of Nature and Aristotle against Grace, through an immense process of arming which amplifies St. Paul’s famous text into thousands of lines, through conflicts with the Seven deadly Sins and the more dangerous companionship of the damsel Youth—but conducts him to the end through strange countries of sorcery and varied experiences, mundane and religious. Thus, the very multitude and the constant phantasmagoric changes of scene and story save the poet from dulness, some leave of skipping being taken at the doctrinal and argumentative passages. In the “Youth” part and in not a few others he is lively, and not too diffuse.

    Scarcely as much can be said of the still longer version of Guido delle Colonne’s Hystoria Troiana, which we possess in some 30,000 lines of heroic couplet, with a prologue of the same and an epilogue in rime royal. To say that it is the dullest of the many versions we have would be rash, but the present writer does not know where to put his hand upon a duller, and it is certainly inferior to the Scots alliterative form, which may be of about the same date. Part of its weakness may be of about the same date. Part of its weakness may be due to the fact that Lydgate was less successful with the heroic couplet than, perhaps, with any other measure, and oftener used his broken-backed line in it. But the poem was twice printed, huge as it is, and was condensed and modernised by Heywood as late as 1614.

    The theme of the Tale of Troy, indeed, can never wholly lack interest, nor is interest wanting in Lydgate’s poem. In this respect he was more successful with the yet again huger Falls of Princes or Tragedies of John Bochas. But this, also, was popular and produced a family more deplorable, almost, than itself (with one or two well known exceptions) in The Mirror for Magistrates of the next century. Its only redeeming point is the comparative merit, already noticed, of its rime royal. To this we may return: a few words must now be said of some other productions of Lydgate. For what reason some have assigned special excellence to Reason and Sensuality, and have, accordingly, determined that it must be the work of his poetic prime, is not very easy to discover. It is in octosyllables, and, as has been said, he is usually happier there than in heroics or in rime royal; it is certainly livelier in subject than most of his works; and it is evidently composed under a fresher inspiration from the Rose itself than is generally the case with those cankered rose leaves, the allegoric poems of the fifteenth century; while its direct original, the unprinted Échecs amoureux, is said to have merit. But, otherwise, there is not much to be said for it. Its subject is a sort of cento of the favourite motifs of the time—Chess; Fortune (not with her wheel but with tuns of sweet and bitter drink); the waking, the spring morning and garden; Nature; the judgment of Paris; the strife between Venus and Diana for the author’s allegiance; the Garden of Delight and its dangers; and the forest of Reason, with a most elaborate game of chess again to finish—or, rather, not to finish, for the piece breaks off at about its seven-thousandth line. It is possible that the argument of earliness is correct, for some of the descriptions are fresh and not twice battered as Lydgate’s often are; and there seems to be a certain zest in the writing instead of the groaning weariness which so frankly meets the reader halfway elsewhere.

    The Temple of Glass, partly in heroics, partly in rime royal, is one of the heaviest of fifteenth century allegorical love-poems, in which two lovers complain to Venus and, having been answered by her, are finally united. It is extremely prosaic; but, by sheer editing, has been brought into a condition of at least more systematic prosody than most of Lydgate’s works. The Assembly of Gods is a still heavier allegory of vices and virtues presented under the names of divinities, major and minor, of the ancient pantheon, but brought round to an orthodox Christian conclusion. The piece is in rime royal of the loosest construction, so much so that its editor proposes a merely rhythmical scansion.

    By far the best and most poetical passages in Lydgate’s vast work are to be found in The Life of Our Lady, from which Warton long ago managed to extract more than one batch of verses to which he assigned the epithets of “elegant and harmonious” as well as the more doubtful praise of “so modern a cast.” It is possible that these citations and encomia are responsible for the good opinion which some have formed of the poet; but it is to be feared that they will wander far and wearily among Lydgate’s myriads of lines without coming upon the equals of

  • Like as the dewe discendeth on the rose
  • In silver drops,
  • or,
  • O thoughtful herte, plonged in dystresse,
  • With slomber of slouthe this longe winter’s night,
  • Out of the slepe of mortal hevinesse
  • Awake anon! and loke upon the light
  • Of thilke starr;
  • or,
  • And he that made the high and crystal heven,
  • The firmament, and also every sphere;
  • The Golden ax-tree and the starres seven,
  • Citherea so lusty for to appere
  • And redde Marse with his sterne here.
  • The subject which never failed to inspire every medieval poet who was capable of inspiration has not failed here.

    The best of Lydgate’s Saints’ Lives proper appears to be the Saint Margaret; it is very short, and the innumerable previous handlings of the story, which has intrinsic capabilities, may have stood him in good stead. On the other hand, the long Edmund and Fremund, in celebration of the saint whom the poet was more especially bound to honour, though spoken of by some with commendation, is a feeble thing, showing no skill of narration. It is not in quite such bad rime royal as Lydgate can sometimes write; but, even here, the plangency of which the metre is capable, and which would have come in well, is quite absent; while the poem is characterised throughout by the flattest and dullest diction. The two Nightingale poems are religious-allegorical. They are both in rime royal and average not more than 400 lines each.

    The beast-fable had something in it peculiarly suitable to Lydgate’s kind of genius (as, indeed, to medieval genius generally), and this fact is in favour of his Aesop and of the two poems (among his best) which are called The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose. Of these two pieces, both very favourite examples of the moral tale of eastern origin which was disseminated through Europe widely by various collections as well as in individual specimens. The Churl is couched in rime royal and The Horse in the same metre, with an envoy or moralitas in octaves. Both are contained, though not completely, in Halliwell’s edition of the minor poems. The actual Aesop—a small collection of Aesopic fables which is sometimes assigned to Lydgate’s earliest period, perhaps to his residence at Oxford—is pointless enough, and contrasts very unfavourably with Henderson;s. But the remainder of these minor poems, whatever the certainty of their attribution, includes Lydgate’s most acceptable work: London Lickpenny itself; the Ballade of the Midsummer Rose, where “the eternal note of sadness” and change becomes musical even in him; the sly advice to an old man who wished for a young wife; the satire on horned head-dresses; The Prioress and her Three Suitors; the poet’s Testament; the sincere “Thank God of all” and others.

    The Complaint of the Black Knight, for long assigned to Chaucer, though not quite worthy of him, is better than most of Lydgate’s poems, though it has his curious flatness; and it might, perhaps, be prescribed as the best beginning for those who wish to pass from the study of the older and greater poet to that of his pupil.

    Lydgate has not lacked defenders, who would be formidable if their locus standi were more certain. The fifteenth century adored him because he combined all its own worst faults, and the sixteenth seems to have accepted him because it had no apparatus for criticism. When, after a long eclipse, he was in two senses taken up by Gray, that poet seems chiefly to have known The Falls of Princes, in which, perhaps by dint of long practice, Lydgate’s metrical shortcomings are less noticeable than in some other places, and where the dignity and gravity of Boccaccio’s Latin has, to some extent, invigorated his style. Warton is curiously guarded in his opinions; and a favourable judgment of Coleridge may, possibly, be regarded as very insufficiently based. The apologies of editors (especially those who are content with systematised metre, however inharmonious) do not go very far, On the whole, though Ritson’s condemnation may have been expressed with characteristic extravagance and discourtesy towards the “voluminous, prosaic and drivelling monk,” nobody can dispute the voluminousness in the worst sense, and it is notable that even Lydgate’s defenders, in proportion as they know more of him, are apt to “confess and avoid” the “prosaic” and to slip occasionally into admissions rather near the “drivelline.” It is to be feared that some such result is inevitable. A little Lydgate, especially if the little be judiciously chosen, or happily allotted by chance, is a tolerable thing: though even this can hardly be very delectable to any well qualified judge of poetry. But, the longer and wider that acquaintance with him is extended, the more certain is dislike to make its appearance. The prosodic incompetence cannot be entirely due to copyists and printers; the enormous verbosity, the ignorance how to tell a story, the want of freshness, vigour, life, cannot be due to them at all. But what is most fatal of all is the flatness of diction noticed above—the dull, hackneyed, slovenly phraseology, only thrown up by his occasional aureate pedantry—which makes the common commoner and the uncommon uninteresting. Lydgate himself, or some imitator of him, has been credited with the phrase “gold dewdrops of speech” about Chaucer. He would hardly have thought of anything so good; but the phrase at least suggests an appropriate variant, “leaden splashes,” for his own.